- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

After finishing their first year under coach Jay Gruden with a dismal 4-12 record, the Washington Redskins will begin their attempt to better themselves on Wednesday when players are due in Richmond for the start of training camp.

While there will always be questions entering a new season, especially after one that went so poorly, the Redskins made strides to address some of their biggest shortcomings, hiring Scot McCloughan as their general manager and either signing or trading for players who can step in as starters.

That doesn’t mean they’ve already paved the road to the Super Bowl. There will be much to watch as the Redskins return to work over the next two and a half weeks, and they hope that the foundation laid now will pay off over the next five months.

Can Robert Griffin III be the quarterback he once was believed to be?

Griffin regressed last season, his first with Gruden, as he struggled to pick up the nuances of the new coach’s offense and find comfort in the scheme. His season was derailed early after he dislocated his left ankle in Week 2, but he showed lapses before then, with training camp and the preseason demonstrating that his adjustment would require a long-term investment. By the time he made his return late in the season, he strung together a series of woeful performances that led to his benching — and if not for an injury by Colt McCoy, he would have finished out the season on the sideline.

Entering his fourth season, with the terms of a new contract resting solely on his performance over the next several months, Griffin has to prove that he can lead a professional offense. He doesn’t need to be an elite quarterback — a serviceable one would suffice — and no longer has the distractions of his first two offseasons (his injury, the coaching change) to explain his shortcomings. For Griffin, it’s now or never.

Will Gruden be able to learn from his first season?

Gruden arrived last year with a strong coaching pedigree, a fresh level of optimism and communication skills that aided him throughout his previous stops, but he encountered a challenge the likes he had not seen before. His honest, refreshing criticisms of his players were dissected nationally by pundits, and a variety of his decisions, from the handling of the quarterbacks to his in-game maneuvers, were occasionally mishandled.

A winner at nearly every stage of the game, Gruden had rarely lost as many games as he did last season. The constant defeats irritated him, yet they likely also motivated him. That can only go so far, however; with McCloughan hired in January, Gruden is working for a general manager that did not hire him, making it possible that another unsatisfying season could lead to a coaching change. If Gruden wants results, he’ll have to show immediate improvement in a variety of places.

What kind of impact will the new assistant coaches make?

Gruden made several changes to his coaching staff, tinkering with the addition of two offensive coaches — offensive line coach Bill Callahan and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh — while rebuilding the defensive staff by hiring defensive coordinator Joe Barry, defensive backs coach Perry Fewell and defensive line coach Robb Akey.

The offensive changes will help, with Callahan helping install more of a power running game as Cavanaugh provides guidance for Griffin, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, but the biggest shift will be on defense. The Redskins vowed to be more aggressive with their pass rush in a retooled, one-gap, 3-4 scheme, and for a unit that struggled mightily in that dimension last season, even the slightest bit of additional disruption would represent, to them, a step in the right direction.

Which positions are up for grabs?

A team that has underperformed so greatly will inevitably undergo a purging of talent, which was the case for the Redskins during the offseason. Though their offensive corps remains mostly untouched, they overhauled much of their defense during the offseason, jettisoning a handful of players who had underperformed in recent years in favor of a slew of others who are expected to be tabbed starters as soon as camp opens.

That list of new starters includes defensive end Stephen Paea, nose tackle Terrance Knighton, cornerback Chris Culliver and free safety Dashon Goldson, with several more likely to join them by the time Week 1 rolls around. Duke Ihenacho and Jeron Johnson have been battling for the top honors at strong safety since the start of offseason workouts, and the questions surrounding DeAngelo Hall’s torn left Achilles tendon will likely lead to a two-man competition between former starters David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland early in camp. There’s also the chance that second-round draft pick Preston Smith could push last year’s second-rounder, Trent Murphy, for snaps opposite Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker.

Will this team be more dynamic than in previous years?

One would think that it can’t get any worse after last season, but the Redskins seem to always find a way to trump themselves. They finished in the bottom half of the league in several key offensive categories, such as rushing yards per game, interceptions thrown, sacks allowed and red zone scoring percentage, and on defense, they were even worse, finishing in the bottom third in yards per play, points allowed and turnover margin.

Much of the offensive success will fall on Griffin’s shoulders, but he’ll need greater balance — and perhaps more — from the running game. He’ll need to prove he can stay upright and can distribute the ball to his wide receivers. The defense will have to be aggressive, opportunistic and stout, which hasn’t been the case for quite some time. There are still plenty of issues to be addressed, and few of them will be answered by the time training camp ends, but the team can only hope it’s taking a step in the right direction.


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